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L.A. Jr. Kings overcome losing streak, theft to win Pacific 18U title

By Justin Lafferty - Special to USAHockey.com, 03/10/14, 4:00PM MDT

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- If a nine-game mid-season losing streak and brazen parking lot theft weren’t enough to stop the Los Angeles Jr. Kings’ 18-and-Under team, the competition didn’t stand a chance.

The Jr. Kings made a clean sweep of the Tier I 18U bracket this past weekend at the USA Hockey Pacific District Championships, crowned by a 6-0 victory over the Alaska Jr. Aces team that defeated them in district finals last year.

“This year, it was nice to play them and have the opportunity to avenge them,” Kings coach Jack Bowkus said. “There are a lot of guys on this team who have never been in this scenario before.”

It was an impressive weekend for the entire Jr. Kings program, as both the 14U and 16U teams completed their district schedules with perfect records. All three Los Angeles teams will advance to the USA Hockey Tier I National Championships April 2-6 in Green Bay, Wis.

At the district championships, forward Jared Pike led the 18U Jr. Kings with 6 points (3-3). Forward Evan Weinger scored a team-high four goals, half of which came Friday against the Alaska Jr. Aces.

The Jr. Kings came to San Jose after a rollercoaster regular season that saw them spend some time below the .500 mark, thanks to a nine-game skid.

Following a late-season push, the Jr. Kings came into the district championships looking to make their mark and get back to the National Championships.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but when it came to this weekend, we were confident,” forward Jake Vitta said. “The guys realized that we had to turn it around as a team and we couldn’t blame anybody. We just had to come together, buy into the system and work together as a team.”

However, the latest setback happened after the Jr. Kings beat the Jr. Sharks 6-0 on Thursday. After a team dinner that night, defenseman Cole Souto returned to the parking lot to discover that most of his gear — everything but the sticks — had been stolen.

Suoto, the team’s captain, missed last year’s district competition with a shoulder injury, so when the equipment went missing, he feared that he’d be relegated to the bench yet again. Fortunately, relatives pitched in old gear and the National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks even lent some shoulder pads and elbow pads to Suoto after hearing about his plight.

“I was obviously freaking out and I thought I was done for the weekend,” Suoto said. “I had some old stuff from my brother stuffed in our garage, and our assistant coach’s wife was flying in from Los Angeles that day. So my dad put a bunch of stuff in a bag and gave it to her.”

The next day, Suoto helped his team defeat the Jr. Aces, 4-2.

On Saturday, the Jr. Kings won their third game, 3-1 over the Ontario Avalanche. Once again, Weinger started Los Angeles’ scoring attack with a first-period goal. Doc Gentzler and John Tomlinson also found the net that day.

The victory set the stage for a budding rivalry, as the Jr. Kings faced an Alaska Jr. Aces team that beat them in the finals last year, 3-1.

This time, Los Angeles left no doubt, dismissing Alaska in a 6-0 victory. Suoto and Shane McMahan each scored twice to lead the Jr. Kings to Nationals.

“We always knew we could play with any team in the country,” Vitta said. “It’s sweet revenge.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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